Mountainside residents against development

Photo Courtesy of Dottie Unchester The pond that is on the property to be developed. Plans include draining the pond, which would affect wildlife, and could pose a problem for water drainage.
Photo Courtesy of Dottie Unchester
The pond that is on the property to be developed. Plans include draining the pond, which would affect wildlife, and could pose a problem for water drainage.

MOUNTAINSIDE, NJ — The vast parcel of land at 1490 and 1496 Route 22 in Mountainside has quite the storied past. On the property sits the former residence of Genovese crime family member Angelo “Gyp” DeCarlo, who ran the family’s loansharking operations during the ’60s. The huge house sits, crumbling and deteriorating, on land that has long been neglected by its current owners.

Now all five acres of this notorious piece of property are slated for redevelopment by the borough after being rezoned in 2014, a move that, according to residents, was completely unknown to them.

The land’s developer, The Pond at Mountainside, LLC, plans to raze the house, clear the land, and drain the large pond that serves to mitigate storm waters in the area during flooding events.

Residents are deeply concerned about issues of water drainage, traffic congestion, parking and safety.
According to Nick Barbera, who owns a house adjacent to the proposed development, a meeting of the Planning Board brought in a frustrated crowd of residents. “It was standing-room only,” said Barbera of the March 23 meeting.

Approximately 100 residents showed up to protest the proposed redevelopment of Block 3-A, Lots 17 and 18, which is situated directly on Route 22. The property is set to accommodate 23 market-priced units and six affordable housing units, all age-restricted. Each of the units will be 2,500 square-foot, three-story townhomes, with the market-priced units getting two-car garages and the affordable housing units, one garage.

The land was rezoned in 2014, at which time the borough’s governing body adopted the requisite amendments to the existing Zoning Ordinance. The board’s amendment, set forth in a written report by professional Planning Board Consultant John T. Chadwick IV, included the affordable housing component.

A Fairness Hearing was held in February of 2014 and, according to council documents, “nobody lodged any objection to the plan.”

But according to Barbera, no one knew anything at all about the rezoning or the development until a letter was sent by the board in early March.

“We only knew about this because the borough was required by law to send us a certified letter,” said Barbera. “Before the residents got the letter, no one had any idea about the housing,” he said of the proposed development.
Repeated calls to the township went unanswered as of press time.

The issue of rezoning to accommodate affordable housing has its roots in two cases decided by the Supreme Court in 1975 and 1983, setting forth what is now known as The Mount Laurel Doctrine. This doctrine states that zoning ordinances that do not provide affordable housing opportunities are unconstitutional, requiring municipalities to zone and take actions in order to provide their “fair share” of affordable housing. The doctrine defines affordable housing as housing that is affordable for low- and moderate-income people.

According to records, “Developers try to identify municipalities that do not provide affordable housing and then bring lawsuits to have the courts set aside their zoning ordinances as being unconstitutional. The developers then try to build projects with 20 to 30 apartments or condos per acre, which is far more than the municipality’s zoning ordinance would have permitted. The lawsuits are called Mount Laurel suits, or builder’s remedy lawsuits.”

The borough received a Judgement of Compliance and Repose from Judge Cassidy on September 10, 2014, which dictates that, “so long as the borough complies with the terms of the judgment, it is immune from Mount Laurel suits until September 10, 2024.”

Barbera says that the movement opposing the development is gaining steam. “We have a grassroots movement,” said Barbera. “The residents are up in arms that they weren’t told about the rezoning back in 2014.”

According to Barbera, the borough is claiming that the proposal is in the best interests of the residents. “If it’s in our best interests, then why did they hide it?” Barbera said. “They didn’t want to deal with it in 2014. Now they’re dealing with it in 2016.”

A huge concern is the proposed draining of a large pond that sits on the property. According to resident Dottie Unchester, the pond is integral to the flooding issues that often plague the neighborhood.

“They say they’ll drain the pond,” said Unchester, who has lived on the property immediately behind the proposed development for 35 years. “The storm water drainage goes into the pond. They say they’ll drain the pond and backfill it. Where is the water going to go?”

According to Unchester, residents did not get many answers at the packed meeting. “When the engineer was asked where the water would go he wasn’t sure,” she said.

Unchester says that more and more people are finding out about the controversial development. “We had such a huge crowd there,” she said. “That’s unusual for Mountainside. People are concerned that they are setting a precedent,” Unchester said of the council.

According to Unchester, there would be just 25 feet between her property and the townhouses. “It’s a little speck of green left, and there are few of them,” remarked Unchester. “There is an ecosystem that is being destroyed. They’ll be cutting down trees. There are foxes back there, frogs, cranes, deer — lots of wildlife. There were fish in that pond.”

Unchester says that she does not object to the six affordable housing units but to the others. “I understand the obligation for the affordable housing units,” she said. “But why not just build those six units and not build the other 24? It’s very sad and very disheartening that all this is being done for profit. It’s a shame.”

Unchester also expressed doubt at the ability of the units to sell. “It’s hard for me to imagine seniors spending so much money, and right on Route 22,” said Unchester, who says that the houses start at about $500,000. “Who knows if they will sell? I just don’t understand why our planning board would do this. We had faith in our town that they were not going to let this happen.”

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